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NFL Players labor unrest and the NFL’s new national anthem policy

Commentary by Michael Sampson |
May 24, 2018
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Jacksonville, FL - After a two-day meeting of the NFL’s 32 owners, on May 23, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced new policy changes in the NFL regarding the playing of the U.S. national anthem before games. The new policy leaves it to individual teams to discipline players for acts deemed “disrespectful” during the anthem but also gives the league wide discretion to fine teams for actions taken by players. The policy was met with cheers from the racist Trump administration, including Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Trump even said players who don’t stand shouldn’t even be in the country. With many NFL players and their players union, the NFL Players Association, the new policy has been met with backlash with the players union saying they weren’t consulted on the new changes regarding the anthem.

The history of kneeling to protest national oppression, and NFL player activism last season

Athlete protests during the national anthem isn’t a recent phenomenon. In 1996, National Basketball Association player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a guard for the Denver Nuggets, refused to stand for the national anthem due to American Islamophobic rhetoric. He said of the protests, “the flag is a symbol of oppression, of tyranny.” "This country has a long history of that. I don't think you can argue the facts. You can't be for God and for oppression. I don't criticize those who stand, so don't criticize me for sitting. I won't waver from my decision."

He was subject to suspensions and fines by the NBA as well as hate threats with one of his homes being burned down.

Kneeling during the national anthem in the NFL however, made famous by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, was started as a protest against police violence and the national oppression of African Americans. Kaepernick, along with his teammate Eric Reid, started kneeling during the anthem to send a message against police shootings. Both Reid and Kaepernick are currently being retaliated against by NFL teams for their activism and have filed a grievance against the NFL for collusion amongst the ownership for preventing them from gaining employment because of their protests. Reid even visited the Cincinnati Bengals, whose ownership told him that he planned to ban Bengals players from participating in anthem protests and refused to sign him because of the stance he has taken.

Last year, Trump, at a rally in Alabama, called for kneeling players to be fired, which set off massive protests by NFL players the following week. Many took part in putting their fists up or kneeling during the national anthem in a sign of defiance against the bigot Trump. Some NFL owners pledged support for the players right to protest during the aftermath of Trump’s comments. Other NFL owners such as Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, who is close to the criminal Bush family dynasty, likened player protests to “inmates running the prison,” which led to outrage amongst his players and even threats of player walkouts at practices due to the comments. McNair later walked back the comments claiming he was misquoted, saying he was actually referring to NFL executives.

It was exposed in 2015 that nearly $5.4 million in taxpayer dollars had been paid out to 14 NFL teams between 2011 and 2014 to honor the military and put on elaborate ‘patriotic salutes’ to the military. It was reported the Department of Defense spent over $10 million in tax payer dollars on working with professional teams in the NFL to show overtly patriotic messages. Therefore, the NFL had to come down on anthem protests as it directly conflicted with their bottom line.

All these incidents have led to a rise in NFL player activism, with contradictions and camps amongst the players emerging. Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Malcom Jenkins, Patriots defensive back Devan McCourty and retired former star player Anquan Boldin, players who took part in protests and/or supported the initial actions of Kaepernick, created a players’ organization called the Players Coalition made up of over 100 current and former NFL players. After initial protests, the Players Coalition, led by Jenkins and others, agreed to not protest during the anthem in exchange for NFL ownership pledging $89 million over seven years to support the Players’ Coalition’s ideals of criminal justice reform through legislative lobbying efforts. Such compromise was met with much chagrin by other players such as New Orleans Saints wideout Michael Thomas and former Kaepernick teammate Eric Reid, with Thomas saying that they "don't believe the coalition's beliefs are in our best interests as a whole."

The NFL players, the prospects of a strike and the broader movement

As of 2017, 68% of NFL players were Black. For a predominately Black league, players must continue to organize themselves to protect their First Amendment rights, to fight against police brutality but as well improve their own labor conditions.

Under the current labor agreement, National Basketball Association (NBA) players get over half of the league’s revenue, as opposed to the NFL, where players get less than half. NFL players get twice as much total money as NBA players, but that money is spread over almost four times as many athletes. There are 32 NFL teams with 53 roster spots each, making for 1696 NFL players at any given moment. There are 30 NBA teams with 15 roster spots each, making for 450 NBA players. A huge difference in NFL and NBA player salaries is that only a fraction of the typical NFL contract is guaranteed, while the NFL is more profitable than any other major sports league in the world.

Also, NFL players have shorter careers due to the violent nature of the sport, with players taking on more safety risks than the average athlete, leading to issues around concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) being found in now deceased former NFL players.

These issues, along with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s unilateral moves around player discipline, the controversy around the NFL players’ anthem protests and the subsequent crackdown on them by NFL bosses, sets up for major contract negotiations after the 2020 season.

Star players like San Francisco 49ers defensive back have already started talking about the possibilities of a strike in 2021.

“If we want to get anything done, players have to be willing to strike,” Sherman said in 2017. “That’s the thing that guys need to 100% realize. You’re going to have to miss games, you’re going to have to lose some money if you’re willing to make the point, because that’s how MLB and NBA got it done.”

Clearly the recent crackdown on player protests by NFL owners are a bone they are throwing towards racist fans and owners disgusted with the player protests. Trump and his supporters used the NFL player protests as a battering ram against the national movement against police crimes and the broader Black liberation movement. Trump supporters called for NFL boycotts last year after the player protests. NFL ratings dropped 10% in 2017, numbers hailed by Trump supporters as showing the boycott worked. However, such an argument doesn’t stand the litmus test, given how ratings dropped even before the player protests. This can be due to NFL oversaturation on various media outlets besides television. As well, the NFL is still racking in record television contracts, including a recent $3 billion TV deal they signed with FOX sports in January.

While NFL bosses may have thought such a policy seeking to limit NFL player protests would scare off player activism, it will surely have an opposite effect. Before Trump spoke on the NFL player protests last year, there weren’t as many player protests as there were after Trump made his racist remarks. Surely a policy seeking to limit player protests will inflame NFL athletes to protests even more.

The new decree by NFL bosses even provoked a response from New York Jets acting owner Christopher Johnson, to say he’ll pay player fines for those who choose to participate in protests. There is already talk amongst NFL players of continuing their anthem protests as well as finding new ways to protest, even from some who hadn’t protested previously, some protesting just to spite the NFL’s new policy.

NFL player protests must continue to be supported, and NFL Players Association leadership must fight harder to pushback against the infringement of First Amendment rights of the NFL workers they represent. Next season we can expect to even more protests, especially as the Black liberation movement in the U.S. continues to grow, along with the pushback against police brutality and broader institutional racism.

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